Books Issue 2016: Susan Johann shoots the faces behind the plays

Oh, so that's what [insert playwright's name here] looks like!

click to enlarge Arthur Miller - Susan Johann, for "Focus On Playwrights," University of South Carolina Press, 2016
Susan Johann, for "Focus On Playwrights," University of South Carolina Press, 2016
Arthur Miller
Among the many plays, memoirs and drama textbooks crowding my bookshelves (I blame a theater degree and a tendency to hoard), there’s one tome I’ve cherished long beyond its sell-by date: A Portrait of the Theatre, a 1979 coffee table book of black-and-white photographs of actors, directors, playwrights, producers and other theater folk by Frederic Ohringer. Portrait betrays its vintage with photos like one of a very young Meryl Streep, from the time (circa Kramer vs. Kramer) when she had blonde locks so long and luxurious she could have starred in ads for L’Orèal.

But it’s not the hair that stays with you, it’s the stare. Ohringer’s photo conveys the gleaming intelligence, the ability to be both present and elusive in front of a camera, that have mesmerized Streep’s audiences for decades. Like all of the photos, it’s also a snapshot of a particular moment in the life of American theater — the mid-to-late ’70s — and captures rising stars before they became legends (Streep, Walken), and legends who are no longer with us (Leonard Bernstein, Joe Papp).

Susan Johann’s 2016 book of photographs, Focus on Playwrights (University of South Carolina Press), is destined to have a long bookshelf life in my house, too. It’s both broader in scope than Ohringer’s — she shot over a 20-year period, Ohringer over five — and narrower: just playwrights. It has already attained a time capsule quality: some of her subjects — Edward Albee, Arthur Miller — died either before or (in Albee’s case) not long after publication. And while Ohringer includes brief statements from his subjects, many of the photos in Focus are augmented by Johann’s in-depth, perceptive interviews with the writers, creating fully rounded portraits that not only provide insight into the imaginations that spawn masterpieces, but also into the current state of the playwriting art.

Craig Lucas, an actor before he became a playwright, explains the allure of creating for the theater without having to be on stage.

“I really like to be in the audience. Being a writer, being a playwright — it's like getting to act but nobody gets to see you act. You do it totally alone.”

Johann's sort-of interview with Miller suggests the challenges she faced in shooting these often elusive subjects. After pursuing him “for years,” she finally got the chance to take his portrait when he became playwright-in-residence in 1996 at NYC’s Signature Theater, where she was the company photographer. “Oh. He hates to have his picture taken,” said his wife, Inge Morath (herself a photographer). But this time he conceded — and after just 43 frames, taken in his Manhattan apartment, he grew impatient and said, "Well, you must have enough now.” When Johann asked if she could interview him, he replied, “No, I've given that up.” And when she asked if she could quote him on that point, he replied, “Yes. Perhaps it will discourage others from asking.”

Many of the faces in Focus are familiar, like Miller's deeply creased, ever-thoughtful visage (the book's cover image) and the sensual, hangdog look of Tom Stoppard. Some playwrights appear in both Ohringer’s and Johann’s books — like the 100-plus-year-old polymath (not just playwright but producer, director, and screenwriter) George Abbott — providing a study in contrasts and a bittersweet record of advancing age. But Johann forges new territory by focusing her lens on current playwrights like Lucas whose works may be known, but whose faces and personae are not yet as instantly recognizable as, say, a Tennessee Williams.

It’s some of these lesser-known figures whom I’ve chosen to highlight below. Each of them has written plays or librettos that have recently been seen in the Tampa Bay area. Take a look at their credits, and maybe you’ll have, as I did, a few “aha” moments — as in, “Oh, that’s what [name of playwright] looks like!”

click to enlarge Books Issue 2016: Susan Johann shoots the faces behind the plays
Susan Johann, 2007, for "Focus On Playwrights," University of South Carolina Press, 2016
LYNN NOTTAGE

Known for: Ruined (Pulitzer Prize, 2009); Shame (opening on Broadway, 2017); By the Way, Meet Vera Stark (nominated for the 2012 Drama Desk Award, Outstanding Play)

Recent local production: Intimate Apparel at American Stage, 2015

click to enlarge Books Issue 2016: Susan Johann shoots the faces behind the plays
Susan Johann, 1990, for "Focus On Playwrights," University of South Carolina Press, 2016

CRAIG LUCAS

Known for: Prelude to a Kiss (Tony nominee for Best Play, 1990); Longtime Companion (screenplay, 1990)

Recent local productions: The Light in the Piazza (with composer Adam Guettel) at freeFall, 2016; An American in Paris (with songs by the Gershwins), Broadway tour coming to the Straz Dec. 20-25, 2016

click to enlarge Books Issue 2016: Susan Johann shoots the faces behind the plays
Susan Johann, 2007, for "Focus On Playwrights," University of South Carolina Press (2016)

SARAH RUHL

Known for: In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play (Pulitzer finalist, 2010); The Clean House (Pulitzer finalist, 2006)

Recent local productions: Eurydice at Stageworks, 2010; Dead Man’s Cell Phone and Orlando at Jobsite, 2010 & 2015; In the Next Room at freeFall, 2012

click to enlarge Books Issue 2016: Susan Johann shoots the faces behind the plays
Susan Johann, 2003, for "Focus On Playwrights," University of South Carolina Press, 2016

NILO CRUZ

Known for: Anna in the Tropics (Pulitzer Prize, 2003); Bathing in Moonlight (Edgerton Foundation New Play Award, 2016 Greenfield Prize)

Recent local productions: Anna in the Tropics at American Stage and Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center (now the Straz) in 2004; A Bicycle Country at A Simple Theatre, 2016

Focus On Playwrights: Portraits and Interviews

By Susan Johann

University of South Carolina Press, 184 p., $39.99.

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